Hard to believe I’ve made it to this milestone age of 90—more than half of those years teaching in higher education—still teaching. There were a number of years when I was a high school teacher of French. Except for a stint as a Marine during World War II and a ten-year tour as an Air Force officer during the Korean Conflict and early Vietnam Era, my adult life has been as a teacher of English (rhetoric and literacy). Along- side of that conduit has been my output as a writer producing works in all genres but principally in “literary non-fiction..”
In terms of identity, I’ve mostly thought of myself as a professor of English with punctuated appointments as Director, Chair, Dean, and Vice Chancellor. My shot at a university presidency was a casualty of racism which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rectified with settlement. Had I been appointed president of Texas A&I University in 1973, I would have been the first Mexican American president of a comprehensive university in the state of Texas. I’m assuaged By Rabbi Ben Ezra’s exhortation: “What I aspired to be, and was not, comforts me.”
As a teacher of French in El Paso, Texas I taught in one of the two high schools populated principally by Mexican American students. When apprised that I taught French at Jefferson High School, the alarum was: You’re teaching them French? They don’t know English and they speak an abominable Spanish. Yes, I’d reply, but they CLEP out of 2 years of French. My high-school students studying French with me read Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Mellarme, Baudelaire, Genet, and many more. Even today my facility with French is about equal to my facility with Spanish.
Five of my first six years as an Assistant Professor of English were as Associate Director of the Freshman Writing Program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces where I honed the 5 paragraph essay. Our success ratio with Freshman students was phenomenal. But all was not serene in the Groves of Academe. In my second semester as a teacher of English the Chair of the department called me to his office to inquire why a particular problem student who was an Art Major was making A’s in my class whereupon I ventured that his problem with English before he enrolled in my class could have been because he was black. It turned out that that Art Major went on to earn a Ph.D. in Art History and enjoyed a career as professor of Art History until his retirement. In appreciation for the course, the art student gave me one of his prize paintings which has always hung prominently in my home—still does.
Unfortunately faculty efforts through AAUP (American Association of University Professors of which I was president at that university) to secure a vote of “No Confidence” anent the academic tyrannies of the President were successful. The President was ousted and so was I, the only Hispanic professor on the faculty and only the fifth Mexican American in the country with the Ph.D. in English.
As Assistant Professor of English and Founding Director of the first Chicano Studies Program in Texas at UT-El Paso, a Chicano student uprising was the only way to motivate an intransigent university administration into properly supporting the Chicano Studies Program. Non-negotiable demands and holding the President hostage for 36 hours in his office entailed federal charges of kidnapping. Five-thousand Chicano students made that “blowout” successful. The President was retired and my contract was not renewed.
During those years, I was involved with NCTE (National Council of Teacher of English) as founding chair of the Chicano Caucus and as a member of the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English headed by Ernece Kelly Chair of the NCTE Black Caucus. The Task Force produced a scathing report—Searching for America—on racism and bias in the teaching of English in American schools and universities.
My outlook as a professor of English can be characterized as a vision of inclusivity opening the aperture of the English curriculum so that it reflects the mosaic of the American people and not just the privileged texts of British literature. I’ve had a long-running feud with College English over this matter, starting with Richard Ohman, Editor in 1970 and lately with Kelly Ritter, current Editor.
|It was the marginalization of Chicano writers that propelled me forty-eight years ago in 1968 to organize the Chicano Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). There weren’t many Chicanos in NCTE in those days. In fact, there weren’t many Chicanos in English in those days. Nevertheless, Carlota Cardenas, Jose Carrasco, and I constituted the Chicano Caucus. There was already a Black Caucus in NCTE. In 1969, Montana Rickards organized the Native American Caucus, and in 1970 Jeffrey Chan and Frank Chin established the Asian American Caucus. These four caucuses (cauci) were the foundation in 1970 for the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English with Ernece Kelly from the Black Caucus as Chair of the Task Force. We all knew very well how marginalized the writers of our groups were and what little representation our groups had in textbooks. We were literally invisible.|
We also knew the dismal state of affairs in the teaching of English—particularly American literature—in high schools and universities. The question was how to document that dismal state of affairs—that is, the absence of marginalized writers in the high school and university curricula in the teaching of English. The Task Force plan was to survey text-books used in the teaching of English in high schools and universities, focusing principally on colleges and universities. To that end, the Task Force established a Textbook Review Committee composed essentially of Task Force members as a Committee of the Whole represented by four blacks, two Chinese Americans, one Native American, two Chicanos, and one Puerto Rican: Antonio Valcarcel from the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. The meetings of the Task Force and its committees were all held at NCTE headquarters in Urbana, Illinois. According to Robert Hogan, “No working body within NCTE enjoyed more support and less intervention” (Executive Secretary, NCTE, “Foreword” to Searching for America Edited by Ernece Kelly, published by the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the National Council of Teachers of English, 1972).
The Textbook Review Committee whittled down to twelve the list of textbooks widely used at the time as college-level American literature texts. The objective of the Textbook Review Committee was two-fold: (1) to assess the textbooks for inclusivity of the “other” and (2) to establish a Criteria for teaching materials in Reading Literature—a Criteria officially adopted by the Board of Directors of the National Council of Teachers of English. Searching for America was received with acclamation by the members of the National Council of Teachers of English when it was “unveiled” at the annual NCTE convention in 1972.
The report Searching for America was structured in two parts: the first part Critical Evaluations critiqued the twelve college-level textbooks of American literature; and the second part featured Background Essays providing information about the current state then of literary progress attained by the writers of the marginalized groups. This was certainly not a bias-free exposition. Nevertheless, it was our hope that in the hands of teachers and administrators Searching for America would be a catalyst for change. Additionally, our hope was that the Critiques and Essays would offer the reader a rudimentary familiarity with the names of marginalized writers and some of their works (see Appendix for list of texts and Background Essays).
The essay on “Chicanos and American Literature” which Jose Carrasco and I contributed to Searching for America still stands as a testament to the continuing search for America enshrined in Emma Lazarus’ sonnet about “the New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty. What has happened in the more than four decades since publication of Searching for America has been the proliferation of Chicano publications to showcase the works of Chicano writers, cutting loose, indeed, the historical umbilical cord that tied them to mainstream publishers.
Metaphorically, the Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English built with Searching for America a “ship” with which to cruise the waters of the Sargasso Sea of American Literature in search of the America idealized in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and in Song. While we did not find that America, we did catch glimpses of it here and there. Many currents have since passed under that bridge over troubled water and many of us are still searching for America. Perhaps it is the search that matters most and not the comfort of Dante’s or Reagan’s shining city on the hill.
At its Atlanta conference in 1970, NCTE adopted the “Non-White Minorities in English and Language Arts Materials” statement proposed by the Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. The rationale for the statement was:
Minority groups in the United States, especially the non-white minorities—Native Americans, Asian Americans, Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, et al—suffer crippling discrimination in jobs, housing, civil rights, and education. And they continue to face a school curriculum that, for them, is culturally impoverished. Ironically, it is also a curriculum which, in a different fashion, cripples white students and teachers by denying them the opportunity to learn about the history and literature of other Americans who are non-whites. (Revised 1978)
Indeed, I had long argued that while Mexican American children of the Hispanic Southwest knew a lot about the literature and people of New England, the children of New England knew very little if anything about the literature and people of New Spain (the Hispanic Southwest).
One of the texts evaluated in Searching for America in 1971 was the Norton 3rd edition of The American Tradition in Literature In that edition Leroi Jones was the only non-white writer included. The text received a scorching evaluation from the Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. A more current anthology with the same title The American Tradition in Literature (McGraw Hill, 2002) is little better though it does include a wider representation of African American writers. In the 2281 pages there is no American Latino writer, though there is one Latina American writer—Isabel Allende. Ignorant of the distinction between American Latinos and Latino Americans—the former, U.S. Latinos; and the latter, Latinos who populate Latin America—this is a common error by American publishers.
The foregoing attests to the fact that non-Latino Americans see all Latinos alike, failing to note the distinctions of historical priority for Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans who became Americans by conquest and fiat.
For Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans the struggle for literary representation continues apace. The new guard of Mexican American and Puerto Rican scholars and writers like Roberto Pachecano have their work cut out for them. The toughest obstacle facing them is the belief by white Americans that English is white.
The search for America is manifest today by the current activity of Roberto Pachecano, a San Antonio writer and Sigma Tau Delta member, in his quest for “American Latinos in Contemporary American Literature.” Forty four years since the work of the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English and publication of Searching for America Latino Americans are still looking for themselves in the textbooks of American Literature. Pachecano’s objective is to modernize the syllabi of America Literature courses to attain literary diversity in the texts of American literature. This was essentially what the NCTE Task Force on Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English sought to accomplish.
Through Sigma Tau Delta (STD), 850 local chapters, the largest organization in the Association of College Honor Societies, Pachecano hopes to exert pressure on college and university departments of English to modify the syllabi of American Literature courses to reflect the inclusion of American Latino writers who are woefully absent from the textbooks of American literature. Pachecano points out that the absence is a noncompliance of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as amended, calling for “protecting people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance” and should be monitored federally just as noncompliance of Title IX is monitored by the Feds, particularly since the Civil Rights Act states that “No person in the United States shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity.”
In effect my legacy rests on my efforts to legitimize Chicano literature with my work on Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico, 1971) first study in the field and my essay on “The Chicano Renaissance” (Social Casework, May 1971). As a body of work my essays reflect the range of topics that have interested me. On my tombstone let it read: Paso por aquí.
Copyright 2016 by Dr. Philip de Ortego y Gasca. Photo of Dr. Ortego used with his permission. All other graphics are in the public domain.